Botswana


Photos available here.

Practical information for cyclists available here.

When you’re pedaling for your second day in a Namibian national park, and you know that you’re fifty kilometers from the next human habitation and that there are elephants, leopards, and lions somewhere around, the sight of the sun nearing the western horizon is not uplifting: you just want to get the hell out of there.

And so it is on our second day in the Bwabwata National Park in the Caprivi Strip, though we actually haven’t seen any of those animals.  We have been assured they’re around by every person we meet, and there have been plenty of signs along the road to warn us of their presence, but actual animals have been limited to a group of kudu a hundred kilometers behind us.  We begin to doubt the existence of any elephants – and lions?  pure myth! 

“Let’s just camp here,” Anna says as the sun disappears over the horizon. “There aren’t any animals.”

“There aren’t any animals” – the African equivalent of “It could be worse – it could be raining!” – in the next two kilometers we startle two groups of elephants eating calmly in the bush by the road – sending them running off into the trees, quickly lost from view in the dusk light.

We decide not to camp here.

We bike on under moonlight to the edge of the park where a group of workers repairing the fence make room for our tent at their campsite.  Dinner is pasta with beans, the more luxurious of the two meals which will sustain us for most of the way to Windhoek (the other being rice and beans).  There is not enough water to wash, but we have enough to make tea, and along with our neighbors we are asleep by ten o’clock, glad that the animal noises around us come from the other side of a huge electrified fence. 

It was a longer day than expected obviously, but waking up the next morning we are glad – this means we will arrive in Botswana on July 1st, Seretse Khama Day.  We’re big fans of Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana, who was a natural leader and yet who almost never got a chance to lead, enduring seven years of exile in the UK because the British government, ignoring the popular wishes of the Bamangwata people, did not want to offend the South Africans and Rhodesians by allowing an African leader to be married to a white woman.  And then we say Africans don’t know about democracy…

In the end, I don’t know what we expected to find on Seretse Khama Day exactly, but I’ll admit it was a disappointment.  The only sign of the holiday was that the banks were closed, and we had to spend an extra night at the border to change money. 

Our route was to take us along the west bank of the Okavango river and then across the Kalahari into Windhoek.  There were three things we knew about Botswana when we arrived: Seretse Khama was a good president, the San (the “bushmen”) still lived there, and the Okavango river delta is one of the natural wonders of the world. 

With Seretse Khama Day a bit of a bust, we went on then to Tsodilo Hills, one of the major sites for San rock paintings and for traditional San religion.  We had changed our whole route to pass by here, inspired like most visitors by the stories of Laurens Van der Post, a South African who wrote about Tsodilo in the 1950′s when he set out to contact San communities still living autonomously in the Kalahari.  The book about the expedition, The Lost World of the Kalahari, is a great bit of writing, though it epitomizes the problems of modern traveling and travel writing: Van der Post has an authentic experience of an increasingly rare culture, he writes about it to protect it, and then hordes of tourists, anthropologists, and cycling hobos like ourselves read his book and set out to find that same experience.  The rest is obvious: tourists want authentic culture but they don’t want to walk (build roads!), or sleep out of doors (luxury hotels!), or even think of a dirty bathroom (flush toilets! showers! swimming pools in the desert!). 

Writing in the fifties, Van der Post describes Tsodilo in a pristine state, almost unknown to the outside world, still an important religious site; writing in the eighties, in The Voice of the Thunder, he laments what the site ultimately became and the role he inadvertently played in the process, with an airstrip recently built to allow overweight western tourists to come spend a few hours looking at the thousands of paintings and the San reduced to selling cheaply made bows and arrows to earn enough money to eat.  While we were there, Tsetsana, our San guide, told us there are plans to start a game park in the area.  No matter that there is no permanent animal population or permanent water, the idea is to drill a new bore hole, build fences, and bring in the menagerie. 

“Tourists like to see animals,” she told us. 

Indeed.

What is perhaps the final act for the San though came at the end of July, when we were already in Namibia and the Botswana supreme court ruled that the last San communities still living in the Kalahari Game Reserve, while having a legal right to their land had no right to the water which would allow them to stay on that land or to dig new water holes.  What the eventual result will be is unclear, but the prospects that any San will be able to remain in the Kalahari, 450km from permanent water, are unlikely.  Meanwhile, a luxury tourist lodge (with swimming pool!) has opened in the reserve, using the very water the San are not allowed to touch.  I can just picture the San artwork which they must be using to decorate their walls, the quotes from Van der Post in their publicity materials… 

Though at the same time, it is not just tourism that is behind all this – the Kalahari also represents one of the world’s major sources of diamonds, and with the diamond trade 45% of Botswana’s GDP, the last bit of land the San claimed as their own after 2000 years of being squeezed out of the region first by the Bantu expansion and then by European settlers, is at last far too valuable  to be left to “uncivilized” people such as themselves…

It is the present day equivalent of the genocide of the American Indians, and we could see it all playing out along the route, whether it was the village of D’kar, built by a San community to give themselves a place to live outside the government reserves, where the familiar scars of fourth world poverty were written on the faces of everyone we saw, or at Tsodilo where we were lucky to be in town for the local dance competition, with both San and Batswana adolescents together dancing traditional Bantu dances and performing dramas on drugs and AIDS in Setswana… 
 
From Tsodilo, we pedaled out to the main road and continued south along the western shore of the Okavango.  We had some worries about being able to see the Okavango, since one other thing that Botswana is famous for how insanely expensive it is for tourists.  And yet, after a few days of searching in Etsha 6, we found ourselves there, in a flat-bottomed boat, gliding through the Okavango Delta.  There are more details about how we worked out an affordable trip in the section for cyclists, but suffice it to say it is possible, don’t listen to the Lonely Planet. 

The delta itself is overwhelming.  The floods this year were exceptional, and we pushed off from the shore six kilometers away from the normal debarking point, gliding through submerged fields for the first hour before reaching the main channel and the endless stretches of reeds and papyrus that make up most of the delta.  A narrow channel no wider than the boat was the only sign of any human presence; the occasional island peeking out now and then though sitting at water level it was always a surprise when it did.  Our guide, John, born in a village in the delta, never hesitated during the two day trip though, not when the narrow channel seemed to vanish, not when there were elephants passing by our campground, not even when we were charged by a hippo.  Well, a little when we were charged by a hippo… 

Getting back to the mainland, we floated along in the bubble that an experience of pure wilderness gives, where suddenly the world of humans seems impossibly loud and face-paced and just generally bothersome. 

It was only later that we learned how rare this experience may one day be – the Okavango river is fed mainly from the rains in Angola, and both of Botswana’s upstream neighbors, Angola and Namibia, have been exploring plans to dam the river for irrigation and hydroelectricity.  The result would be catastrophic for the delta, which relies on the unique characteristics of the Okavango river to avoid drying out in the dry season, making it the major source of permanent water in the Kalahari and a tremendous economic and environmental resource for the people who fish and herd and guide tourists there.  You would like to think it would never happen, that human beings are too smart to destroy something so complex – and yet it’s just what we have done to the Hadejia-Nguru wetland, the Logone river, the Hamoun wetland, the Aral Sea, the Rio Grande, the Yellow River…  The list goes on and on..

Coming back from the delta, we were basically in Windhoek, just a little question of a thousand kilometers of Kalahari desert to cross.  Once again, we found ourselves pedaling along, fighting the wind and the mental battles that make up a ten day stretch with almost no change in scenery: flat gray sand scattered with clumps of dry brown grass, squat trees and shrubs with menacing thorns stretching off into the distance.  The Kalahari is actually classified as a semi-arid region, and there are huge stores of underground water which help feed the vegetation; there are also more classical desert sections of sand dunes, but not anywhere you would choose to bike.

The days began to take a familiar rhythm, waking up with the sun to break the ice on our water bottles before cooking breakfast (it’s winter here), then fighting the wind and boredom for five hours with occasional breaks for snacks, all the while trying to make sure we reach the next decent-sized town so that we can fill up on water.  The first bit of uphill we reached was just on the Namibian side of the border and at its top that we met Charlie – cycling around the world for nine years now.  He is the sixth cyclist we have met this trip, and by far the most experienced, so we managed to corner him for tips on all the various routes to come, on all the countries we would like to visit.  Charlie had just returned to Africa after a stint in Asia – “It’s too fucking easy there,” he told us. “I missed Africa.” 

After a few rest days couch surfing in Gobabis, we then made the final two day push into Windhoek, with our bikes giving out on the last hills in town, our chains gliding along the gears without any purchase, and my chain snapping in two.  There is a great bike shop in Windhoek though, and after they diagnosed stretched chains and pledged to nurse our babies back into shape, we slept easy.  And yeah, we also slept easy since we had a decent bed for once – Anna’s family were in town to visit…

We’ll have another update in a few weeks, as always, feel free to sign up for the Google Group if you want an e-mail notification when we post. And thanks as always for all your support and encouragment!

[And for more information about Seretse Khama, try the book Color Bar by Ruth Williams; for more information on the state of the world's rivers, try When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce]

Posted in Botswana, Namibia | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Zambia

 

Photos available here

Practical information for cyclists available here

So, in early June we set out from Kasama to make our way south, heading through Lusaka and Livingstone (Victoria Falls) to the Namibian border and the Caprivi Strip.  In total, it was about 1500 kilometers of riding through some of the dullest terrain imaginable…

But no, it wasn’t all that bad.  Part of the problem I think is just that when we imagine biking in Africa while we’re sitting in an office in Europe or the US  and we haven’t seen the sun for three days, we imagine it as jungles and savannahs and constant excitement and adventure.  In reality though, there are long long stretches like northern Zambia, where the terrain is flat, the road is straight and well-paved, the traffic is light, and the villages or towns which might break the monotony are hours of riding apart.  I picture it as something like biking across Nebraska maybe, or North Dakota – not something to rush out and do right away…

Though that is just the biking, and if we have had to focus and push ourselves to make it through our five hours in the saddle, it has been all the easier since where we end the day has been all the adventure we could hope for. 

There was the night early on, for instance, spent in a small village near the Tanzanian border.  Francis, who cycled along next to us at the end of the day and invited us to his home, set us out on a mat before his house after dinner and then essentially played the role of MC for two hours as all the children of the village huddled around us to ask questions about our trip, to learn more about the first whites to have visited their village in two years – for many of the children the first they had ever seen. 

And yet their questions were the same as anywhere else – How far do you bike a day?  What do you do about wild animals?  Where do you sleep at the end of the day? 

In the end, after establishing that Anna is Catholic and Dave a Protestant (it’s easiest this way), the whole village announced that they approved greatly of our mixed marriage, and set out to sing hymns, taking turns between the Catholics, the Protestants, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though in reality everyone seemed to know the words to all the songs. 

“Will you sing for us now?” Francis asked then – a rare request for any member of the Meyer family to hear. 

We paused, thought it over, debated any songs we might know in French and English, preferably religious of course lest we blow our cover…  We settled on ‘Silent Night’ – not the best choice evidently since after the first syllable the entire village burst out laughing and didn’t stop for at least ten minutes.  We laughed along with them though, it’s just how things work here sometimes: if you can’t laugh at yourself, you won’t last long.

And there were plenty of other notable nights as well: the night spent camped in the front yard of the local witch doctor’s house (the first thing she said to us was: “Do you have pills for my knees?” – as her son explained to us, “She isn’t that kind of doctor…”), visiting the local chief the next morning for a royal audience (he gave us a bag of peanuts); the night spent watching WWF Wresting DVD’s in Paul’s jam-packed home, his baby melting into tears every time he looked at us, the ghosts sitting in his living room; the night spent camped at the base of a cell phone tower, guarded by a team of men who assured us every few minutes that we were perfectly safe there; the night on the crocodile farm; the night treated to a massive feast by two development volunteers in Mpika; or even just the numerous nights spent camping in the endless Zambian bush wherever our five hours of cycling happened to leave us – even if it was just the tall grass on a hilltop not ten meters from the passing trucks..

The biggest challenge – other than biking five hours through terrain so exciting that you could mistakenly think you were just passing the same tree over and over, though the arrow-straight road would cure  you of that notion soon enough – has been the lack of restaurants  In East Africa, the short break for tea and chapati, or beans and rice, came to be our lifeblood – a great way to meet people and to see local villages.  Zambians haven’t quite taken the tea culture of their eastern neighbors though (the lack of a Swahili influence maybe?) and so the tea and lunch breaks have been replaced by cans of beans and water along the side of the road.

Another change has been in the reception we get as whites – never an easy question in Africa.  In the east, everyone assumed we were rich of course, the same seems to be true everywhere we go.  At the same time though, people didn’t seem to care that we were white really, or if they did it was more because it was a funny and curious thing, and people would often approach us to talk and find out more about where we were from. 

In Zambia though, the further south we went, the more we started feeling suspicion, initial coldness from people.  Though of course once you break the ice they are as warm and welcoming as anywhere else – at first though…

It is a different history down here.  Zambia, formerly the colony of Northern Rhodesia, was exploited by the British essentially as a mining enterprise (copper primarily, though as a couple of geologists we met in Livingstone told us, there may be a whole lot more than that in Zambian soils), with the proceeds being heavily invested in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where there was a more substantial white population.  It was only through great efforts on the part of Zambian (and Malawian) exiles at the time that the colony (along with Nyasaland – Malawi) was not simply combined with its southern neighbors in fact, and thus subsumed by their racist governments. 

Even after independence, the presence of the racist governments of Namibia (part of South Africa at the time) and Rhodesia on Zambia’s borders remained a menace – combining with Angola and the DRC to make for as difficult a regional situation as any African country can claim to have faced, with the exception maybe of another of Zambia’s neighbors, Botswana.

Today things are even more complex: many of the white Zimbabweans who have fled the catastrophe Mugabe created in Zimbabwe have come to settle in Zambia, often at the invitation of the Zambian government.  We were surprised often as we biked along roads lined with enormous conventional farms (again, picture Nebraska) to see pick-up trucks driven with one white man (invariably overweight) in the front and several blacks (invariably thin) in the back.  It felt almost like biking through the Jim Crow south sometimes…

One night for instance, a local white farmer offered to let us pitch our tent on his land, even letting us load our bikes and bags into his pickup truck for the 2km backtrack to his drive-way.  We lifted them in with the help of the black farm manager who was also there.  When we made to ride in the back though, we were invited up front – the farm manager can ride in the bed with the bikes of course. 

After dropping us off, our host set off again into the cold dusk – alone in the cab now, shouting orders all the while out the window to the manager, still holding on the roof and riding in the bed…

When people twice my age start calling me “Boss” at every introduction, I start feeling a little weird. 

This is a sign we are getting farther south though, closer to the Republic of South Africa, the “Rainbow Nation,” and we are excited to feel like we are moving along, curious to see what lies ahead.  For all the long stretches of open road, Zambia is a beautiful country with wonderful people, and it was not without some sadness that we crossed the border into Namibia at the end of the month…

Otherwise, all is well, thank you as always for your comments and messages of encouragement, they brighten our days to say the least! Our apologies also for the sporadic nature of our updates, but good internet can be hard to come by.  If you would like an e-mail notification every time we add a post, don’t hesitate to sign up for our Google Group!  Thanks!

Posted in Zambia | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Kansato Farms

(Photos available here)

Let’s begin with a confession:

We’ve cheated. 

Leaving Dar… God this is hard to write…  We…  We took the train to Mbeya…

But it’s not that we didn’t want to bike – far from it, we love Tanzania, it’s just that we have to make it to Windhoek by the end of July and three weeks biking to Malawi was going to set us back a ways.  And okay sure, if taking a train saved us biking 1600 meters of elevation gain, well, we weren’t going to complain about that either…

Mbeya is a beautiful town, a sort of ‘Little Switzerland’ (The second ‘Little Switzerland we have visited on this trip – what is it with tourist offices and that phrase?) of Tanzania not only because the couch surfers we stayed with there were Swiss: the mountains surrounding the city, the cool dry air, the morning chill, it really was a world away from humid and stifling Dar. 

The plan then was to go on to Malawi, and after a few rest days (yes, we are now such experienced cyclists that even after a train ride we can fit in a few rest days), we got on our bikes and started pedaling in that direction, making it about twenty kilometers outside of town before Anna pulled over to the side of the highway for a little water break, and with long-distance trucks flying by on the road and a group of schoolgirls staring at us and shouting ‘How are you?’, announced that we shouldn’t go to Malawi.

‘We should go to Zambia,’ she said.

‘Okay,’ I said.

And so we went back to Mbeya to find a fortuitous e-mail in our inbox from a farm we had contacted in Zambia and a day later we were off once more, pedaling west this time.  And that, with a quick detour on an organic farm run by a wonderful group of South African missionaries, is how we came to spend the past month working on a coffee farm in Northern Zambia.

The farm itself is 300 hectares, with only 30 under cultivation; it was given as a gift to Mr. and Mrs. Powell, the British farm owners who we stayed with in Kasama, in return for their work as schoolteachers in the area, making it quite literally infinitely cheaper than anywhere else.

After a few days of shuttling back and forth into Kasama, we were settled into our little hut on the farm (most of the workers live in similar huts on the land) along with Annina, another Wwoofer, and trying to fit into the daily routine.

For us, this meant waking up around 5:45 to start a wood fire to boil water for coffee (can’t work on a coffee farm without drinking coffee – though actually we were probably the only people on the farm who could afford to) and oatmeal and then a three kilometer bike ride through one of the many stretches of forest on the land up to the main farm buildings where work started promptly at 7:00 as Alex, the farm manager, gave out the day’s tasks. 

Everyone then set to work, with an optional lunch break from 12 to 2, and then work continuing to 3 or 5 depending on the lunch break, though some workers would stay much later.  Biking back down to our hut at night, we would have enough time to gather a little wood and start the fire before it got dark, cooking some of the food we had brought out from Kasama before going to bed around 8, with the Milky Way and the Southern Cross rising above the broad marsh across the way.

It is picking season on the farm now that the rains have ended, and so most activity was geared  towards that endless task while we were there.  Every morning groups of women of all ages with small children in tow came from surrounding villages to work for the day, heading out to the fields in the morning with empty buckets and sacks and coming back in the evening with loads of sometimes up to 90 kilos balanced on their heads.  Children work alongside their parents here, doing what they can to contribute during what is probably the only time all year that the household can earn a little cash.

In the evenings, the coffee is pulped and fermented, with Lawrence, the machine operator, often putting in twelve hour days if there is a good harvest.  The next morning, the coffee skins are sent off to be composted and the fermented beans are washed and graded and sent off to dry.  The whole pulping / washing / grading area is then cleaned just as the pickers come back from the fields with the new loads balanced securely on their heads. 

In the drying gallery, women move through rows of tables, picking out beans which fell into the wrong pile during the grading and checking the moisture levels.  After a few days, when Alex declares the beans dry, they are packed up and brought in for hulling, and then shipped to Kasama for roasting, grinding, and packaging – the coffee itself is sold in supermarkets in Lusaka and the Copperbelt under the apt label ‘Kasama Coffee’.

We helped some with all of these little steps except picking, and it’s a good feeling to know that we have now pulped, washed, graded, dried, sorted, carried, and composted the skins of more coffee than we could ever possibly drink in our lives. 

More importantly though, working on the farm gave us even more respect for the Zambian people.  Six or seven days a week, they are there on the farm, working hard from morning to night with no vacations.  They can build tables, corrals, just about anything with often next to no tools, salvaging old pieces of wood and wire, cutting boards with a folding pocket-saw, and even hammering nails with a handle-less hammer. 

All of it they do because they have to eat and support relatives, but mostly for their children – to pay the often-exorbitant school fees and to try to offer them a better future.  And all of it they do not only with pride and with energy, but with a lightheartedness that lets them laugh all the day long and even take the time to show how to do simple tasks to the bumbling Mzungu who have somehow fallen in their midst. 

This is where coffee comes from, and it was a pleasure to get to know the farm workers over the past month, and we will miss them all dearly.  Still, the road is calling and it is a long way to Windhoek…

Posted in Zambia | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Photo Update: Zanzibar

Yes, you can believe the title – no incoherent rants this time, just photos from our week in Zanzibar, the spectacular island off the coast of Dar es Salaam.  Since getting back to Dar we have taken the train to Mbeya and then biked over the border to Zambia, where we’re working on a coffee plantation for the moment.  But more on that later, for now, just the photos, available here.

Posted in Tanzania | Tagged | 1 Comment

Dar es Salaam

(Sorry, but the internet connection is too slow for putting photos in the text!  They’re available online here though, thanks!)

Our original route didn’t have us passing through Dar until the very end of our time in Africa.  We decided to change that when we left Rwanda; we had heard bad things about the route along Lake Tanganyika and we were expecting a bit of a rainy season somewhere along the way.  Also, as the horror stories about cycling in Ethiopia built up (a teacher friend of ours had an Ethiopian student who wrote an essay about throwing stones at cyclists), we decided we’ll probably skip that last northern leg of the trip.

The idea then was just to cross Tanzania to Dar and spend maybe a week or so there before heading over to Zanzibar.

Well, so much for that: with the exception of five days on Zanzibar, we’ve been in Dar for a month now.  This week we’ll finally head out, taking the train south to Mbeya and then pedaling on to Malawi.

What got us to stay for so long?  Well, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least partially the house-sitting… 

When we first arrived in Dar we were staying with Nico, a friend from Brussels.  A friend of his then invited us to take care of her house while she was in Cameroon for ten days.  Those of you who have traveled for long periods can probably imagine how nice it was for us to go from random guest houses and sketchy bush camping spots to suddenly having a double bed, a shower, a refrigerator, and even an oven – all this without having to repack our things every morning or negotiate a new price every night.  Just what we needed to recharge the batteries a bit after four months on the road.

Even more than house-sitting though, we stayed because we finally found a way to make ourselves useful.  Shocking, I know, but the ATD 4th World team in Dar welcomed us with open arms, putting us to work in their office and letting us tag along to street library and other projects – please don’t hold that against them. 

Of course, we knew the movement from before, and that helped: if you don’t know ATD, it can be hard to really understand quite what they do.  Even myself, who learned about ATD through Anna five years ago, and who has volunteered with them some through the years, I don’t think I quite “got” the idea of ATD before these past weeks spent pestering the team here in Dar.

What is there to “get”? 

Well, ATD isn’t really an NGO in any traditional sense of the term.  What it is, rather, is an international movement of people living in extreme poverty to organize and fight for their own rights.  The Movement was itself started by people living in extreme poverty in France in the 1950′s working alongside a Catholic priest named Joseph Wreszinsky, who himself grew up in extreme poverty.  The idea was to organize themselves to work towards ensuring their own rights and to eradicating extreme poverty around the world.

And though maybe that doesn’t sound so dramatic a difference, it’s actually pretty groundbreaking – especially here in Africa, where the dehumanizing nature of extreme poverty and failed charity which created the Movement fifty years ago are pretty much de rigueur for millions of people.

Now, we haven’t really hidden how skeptical we’ve become of the whole “development” enterprise: most of the organizations we meet seem to be corrupt, ineffective, and unnecessary.  In any decent-sized town in Africa, the largest houses and nicest cars will belong to the development workers; few if any of the development workers we’ve met feel that their own organization has any real impact on the lives of the people they claim to serve; and often there are multiple organizations in the same area promoting the same goals: all in competition with one another, fighting for the grant money which they need to survive and keep those beautiful houses and beautiful cars in good working order…

What has been the biggest shock though is that this skepticism is completely accepted here – it’s almost taken for granted!  There is no criticism we level that doesn’t come directly from people working in the field.  Most of them stay then either because they can’t think of anything else to do (“But this has been my whole career” or “But this is better than working for some company”), or because let’s face it, they could never enjoy the same standard of living (mansion, garden, SUV, maid, chauffeur, cook, guard – all paid for by the office) back home. 

Over the past five months of meeting and talking with development workers, we have found maybe one who really believes that NGO’s do good – and even that seemed limited to NGO’s that dig wells.  There were a few people actually who spoke positively of these kinds of organizations.  Before you get your wallet out though, be careful: there are dozens of organizations out there working to provide clean drinking water, unless you have seen the work they do and spoken with their fieldworkers yourself, I would think twice before getting involved – we have just heard too many horror stories (far too many to relate here unfortunately).

All of this is not ATD. 

For starters, ATD doesn’t operate with an insanely large budget – in fact, as Bruno, one of three international volunteers currently working with the ATD team in Dar, told us: the Dar es Salaam director of one governmental aid agency receives about as much per month to pay for housing as the entire ATD Tanzania monthly budget (they learned this because the director in question was having trouble finding a house in his price range…).

All ATD staff members are known as “volunteers” and they are members of the “International Volunteer Corps,” founded by Father Wrezinski.  Volunteers sign on to work together with people living in extreme poverty (hence ATD: All Together in Dignity), and thus while not subjecting themselves to extreme poverty, do agree to share the difficult circumstances of the communities they work with.

There are currently 3 international volunteers with the ATD Dar team: Bruno from France, his wife Ana from Germany, and Salehe from Tanzania. 

More than just reduced salaries though, the money also has a strong influence on how ATD operates in Tanzania: ATD doesn’t pay people to come listen to its message.

I know what you’re thinking: What kind of a charity pays people to listen to their message? 

Most charities in East Africa, as near as we can tell!

This we first heard about in Kenya, when one smaller NGO told us that they couldn’t get people to come to their events because they couldn’t afford the 5$ per person fee that other NGO’s gave for attendance.  The same is the case here in Tanzania it turns out, and whenever ATD tries to present itself to new people, the money aspect comes in and complicates matters.  Last week, we took notes at a meeting of young members of the movement which ended with two young men explaining that their families had sent them out to ATD so they might “bring back something,” and that if they didn’t “bring back something” next time, it would be hard to keep coming…

Another difference with ATD is that because it’s a movement of people living in extreme poverty, it doesn’t provide services. 

What does that mean really?  Well, a typical NGO develops an idea in Europe or the US (Let’s teach Africans about farming!), then sets about getting together grants to fund it (Look at the starving Africans! [Insert photo from Ethiopia in the 1980's] If only they knew how to farm!), and then shows up in the field to implement it all (You don’t know how to farm, but we do!  Here’s five dollars!). 

The result?  Not surprisingly, the people who come to meetings are more interested in getting paid than in learning about organic farming.  Nevertheless, the NGO can then go and show its donors that hundreds of people have attended its workshops and that thus they are far more efficient than those other farming NGO’s, and so are a much better investment: hunger will be eradicated within the year. 

The problem is obvious though: not only were the people not listening, but poverty is about much more than just a lack of knowledge of certain farming techniques.  Poverty, particularly extreme poverty (and this is another worthwhile note: the poorest people will never be reached by NGO’s like the one caricatured here, the poorest people are far too marginalized to be included in such events) is a daily, dehumanizing sense of insecurity which can’t just be erased with a class on farming and an airlift of five dollar bills.

ATD, by comparison, has been in Tanzania for ten years now.  During that time, they have invested themselves mainly in getting to know the poorest communities and building up trusting relationships with them.  This includes stone workers at a quarry north of Dar, the firewood and charcoal sellers at the Dar fish market, and families living in Tandale, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.  Having built up the relationships, the team then works with them to help them provide for themselves. 

Over a year ago, for instance, a friend of ATD named Mbaraka, who is the head of the firewood and charcoal sellers union at the Dar fish market, mentioned that many of the members of the union don’t know how to read and write.  The ATD volunteers then worked with Mbaraka and the union members to find funding and time and space to arrange their own literacy classes.  The funding is tiny, just enough to pay a teacher and cover administrative costs, but the impact is huge: every six months, twelve more members of the firewood and charcoal sellers union learn to read. 

We had the chance to meet the students and teacher when they came to the office for a bit of a mid-term celebration, and also by visiting their class at the market one Friday.  They’re a raucous bunch, alternately heckling and encouraging each other as they stand in front of the class and try to decipher what were up until recently completely unintelligible symbols.  Students who successfully pass the first class become supporters during the second class, making sure that the new batch of students do their homework and attend classes – something that can be difficult when not only have you not eaten breakfast or lunch, but you know you haven’t earned enough to eat dinner that night either.

Another ATD project is helping families to get birth certificates for their children.  This again involves little money, just taking the time to go with mothers to local government representatives to figure out what the best way is to navigate the often labyrinthine paths of Tanzanian bureaucracy.  The results is significant: people without birth certificates don’t legally exist, and will never have the same rights and opportunities people with birth certificates. 

ATD volunteers and allies go with the women, but in the end the women do the work themselves, encouraging one another forward as a community.  This is the same with the literacy class: ATD doesn’t build schools and it doesn’t stick its logo on huge signs on all the doors.  ATD just helps the poorest people help themselves.

And this leads maybe to the biggest difference we noticed, encompassing the entire approach to relating to the Tanzanian people.  When we were talking with Ana, the German volunteer, she said the words she took to heart when setting off to Tanzania were the words Father Wrezinski had given to the first volunteers sent off to the developing world: “Aime les gens” (Love the people). 

Anyone who has spent five minutes with a disgruntled African development worker can see how different this approach is.  Most NGO’s come here with a European (I include American in the term) mentality, hoping to work in a European style with European goals and principles guiding the way.  But Africa isn’t Europe, and such an approach leads inevitably to frustration and alienation. 

Rather than looking for reasons to love the people, most development workers wind up resenting them and secretly hating them. 

The problem is, not only does this not help the people of countries like Tanzania, but it actually hurts.  Whether it’s promoting corruption or undermining traditional social support structures or just reinforcing the degrading social stigma attached to poverty, it has a real harmful effect and traveling through the region it has been hard to not become too cynical.

Fortunately though, ATD is not alone.  While we were in Dar, we met another group of Africans working for themselves: UWABA, the Dar es Salaam cyclists union, which works to promote the interests of cyclists and cycling safety in the city.  We met them thanks to the ATD team, who thought we might be interested in what they do.

We visited UWABA twice, and talked with Elaine, an Irish woman living in Dar who is one of the co-founders of the group.  She told us that at the beginning, UWABA had many of the same frustrations as ATD, explaining again and again that no, they weren’t going to pay people to come to meetings, but that anyone interested in working together to represent themselves was welcome.  Today, UWABA has over 250 members in Dar, and a group of unpaid volunteers who come every Saturday to their two-hour meetings. 

UWABA has presented cycling safety issues to government ministers, and organizes a cycling event each fall that can get thousands of attendees.  They are also members of the newly launched African Bicycle Network, an association of African cyclist groups.  And all the while those unpaid volunteers are now launching a bike messenger cooperative.

So, two organizations in Dar – the inevitable question is: Why aren’t their more? 

Well partially I think because of the time – there is a joint ATD-UNICEF report which came to the conclusion that a commitment of at least 10 years is necessary to reach the poorest people.  What NGO is willing to spend that much time working in one place, living like Africans, and all the while simply building up relationships, working without any measurable achievements that they can send back home to justify themselves to the fundraisers? 

And how many Europeans (again, I include Americans) are really willing to live like Africans?  In Dar, there is a neighborhood called “The Peninsula” where almost all the embassy and development staff live.  It is geographically isolated (on a peninsula, duh), and is completely different from the rest of the city, with huge mansions surrounded by stone walls, often topped by barbed wire and electric fences.  There are no corner shops or restaurants, no women selling chapati along the street; instead there are private security guards in pickup trucks driving around on patrol.

The volunteers from ATD don’t live in that neighborhood; the volunteers from UWABA don’t either.  By not living there, they keep their budgets smaller, but more importantly, they keep a sense of perspective on the rest of the country, they keep in contact with the people they are ostensibly trying to help.  They don’t set themselves apart as something different, as a rich elite come to teach the poor masses how to behave themselves. 

Two people helped us realize just how important this is.  One was our wise friend Natalie, who observed, when we were out one night in the peninsula, that “If I were Tanzanian and I saw all these white people here not mixing, I think I would want them to leave my country.”

The other was the teacher of the fish market literacy classes.  After waxing poetic on the strengths of Salehe, the Tanzanian volunteer, he spoke of Bruno and Ana, the two white volunteers, comparing them to other whites in Dar saying: “The other Wazungu are not easy to go to, they have good education, a good life.  To go close to them, you fear sometimes, you think maybe you can get a slap.  Bruno and Ana are very friendly, we can just go to their house and knock and they will always let us come in, they are good friends with good hearts.” 

This is why we love ATD.

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Tanzania

(Des infos pratiques pour les cyclistes disponibles ici)

 

(Photos available here)

(Practical information for cyclists available here)

Tanzania…  How to describe biking in Tanzania…

One story sums it all up for me:

DSC01538A few days into the country, Anna and I stopped for our afternoon break under a tree outside a village.  We read and napped, and all the while among the dozens of people who passed along the road, no one bothered us.

As the afternoon wore on, we realized we needed water, and I went back into town to fill up our 10 liter water sack.  In town, I asked for the well, and after (an indication of the quality of my Swahili) a dozen people tried to sell me bottled water, I finally found it on my own, a giant concrete cistern in the front yard of a family compound on the edge of town.

A small crowd gathered as I dipped the rope and bucket into the well, and being still in my Ugandan frame of mind, I kept my eyes down and was tense just waiting for the first insult, the first joke, the first person asking me ‘What’s the problem?  What do you want?’ – which never happened.

What happened instead was that my sunglasses fell off and into the well.  My prescription sunglasses, I should add.

I shouted “Shit,” of course, and looked up at the faces of the crowd staring at me. I shouldn’t have cursed in front of the kids maybe, but this was serious, and they probably didn’t understand I figured.  I laughed and shrugged my shoulders to cover it up.

They didn’t laugh back or do much more than look confused…

I was in a state of crisis though, preparing to bike blind to South Africa as I started pulling up on the bucket – and how I was going to explain it all to Anna?  I kept heaving on the rope, preparing myself for how she would give me grief about having left the sunglasses in my pocket, where everything always falls out…  I could picture the look on her face already and I slowed some on the bucket – what was the rush?

IMG_4865But then!  Then!  You won’t believe what happened then:  I pulled up the bucket, the rope tight with the weight of water, only to see my sunglasses!  With all the space of that huge well, they had fallen INTO the bucket!  What are the chances?

I pulled them out of the bucket and held them up high for the whole crowd to see, and laughed and almost danced and…  And they all smiled back and didn’t seem to get what all the fuss was about.

Without my asking, a young girl came forward to help me empty the bucket into our water sack.

And that is biking in Tanzania.  Biking in Tanzania, everything turns out for the best.

Which is not to say it has been an easy month of biking – far from it!  This is something else we have learned since we started this trip: there is no such thing as an easy day.

For a long time, we biked peering around every bend and climbing every mountain (there’s that pesky Julie Andrews again…) waiting for the huge downhill that we imagined in our dreams, or for the open plain with a 50km/h tailwind…  And of course it never came.  It has taken us four months, but we’ve accepted this now: the giant downhill doesn’t exist; the only 50km/h tailwind is in our dreams; there are no easy days.

Once we resigned ourselves to this though, things actually got a lot… well… easier…

Though maybe this is just because we resigned ourselves to this while biking in Tanzania, where the people are so nice and welcoming that everything is a bit easier.  Over the past month, our standard routine of arriving in a village and looking for a place to eat while a horde of villagers (up to 50 people sometimes) follow us at a close distance, has had to change – we just don’t draw that much attention.

Which is not to say that people don’t stare, or that they don’t ask us questions about where we’re going – it’s just that they stare from a distance, and they ask and then leave us alone when they get an answer – in short, they act as if touring cyclists pass through ten times a day – they treat us as absolutely nothing out of the ordinary…

We love Tanzania.

Though no, it hasn’t been totally without challenges.

DSC01558One has been the roads.  Tanzania has a bit of a sand problem, and any road which isn’t paved is likely to be covered by several inches of loose sand, which makes biking all but impossible, and once we got off the tarmac road, I don’t think there was a day we didn’t wind up pushing our bikes at least once.

The worst stretch came between Kwamtoro and Kondoa (note to any cyclists passing through Tanzania: don’t take the road between Kwamtoro and Kondoa!), where the inches of sand were combined with a steady uphill and a major infestation of tse-tse flies.

Biking in sand is one thing, biking in sand uphill still another: doing both while holding the handlebar with only one hand and trying to swat at the flies that are biting your back (and they hurt!) is a whole new sport, and it was just about the limit of our balancing ability.  We pushed a lot that day, taking five hours to cover a stretch of about 50 km, running out of food and water along the way.  Our map had told us there would be a village after about 15 km, but that wasn’t so much the case (note to any cyclists passing through Tanzania: if you do take that road, there’s no village after about 15km)…

We decided to take two rest days in Kondoa when we finally made it – an easy decision since we met some American expats there who invited us to their home and fed us pizza and cheeseburgers and brownies and ice cream.  The two days turned into a week though soon enough, when advice from locals and quick phone conversations with parents sent us up north to Arusha to see if we had caught sleeping sickness.  We hadn’t (note to any cyclists passing through Tanzania: if you do take that road, and pass through that village that doesn’t exist, don’t worry, you don’t have sleeping sickness), but the detour led to us meeting the craziest Frenchmen in Africa and to seeing Kilimanjaro, so it wasn’t all bad.

The other challenge we’ve had has been sleeping.  This is one we hadn’t expected when we set out for the trip – usually after a long day of biking staying awake is the problem.  But since we keep such strange hours here (ideally asleep by 9, awake by 5.30), there is always some noise to keep us from rest.DSC01612

In towns, this is often the local mosque.  Now, we have both traveled in the Muslim world before (Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan…), and before this trip we both felt that the call of the muezzin really was a beautiful sound.

But in Tanzania, not only are the singers just absolutely atrocious, but they have the habit we haven’t encountered anywhere else of broadcasting by loudspeaker to the entire town not just the muezzin, but the entire prayer service.  This means that with our ridiculous sleeping hours we are generally woken up twice a night by an hour long Arabic-language religious service.

Not only is this hard on our sleep, but it does nothing for inter-faith tolerance…

And then there are just the sleeping arrangements.  We had started out doing some bush-camping – pitching our tent in the woods along the road whenever it got dark.  We had a few very nice (religion-free) nights this way, but then the farther east we got the harder it became to find truly secluded spots – for all that Tanzania seems to be sparsely populated, there are actually people everywhere you go.

And so we settled on local guesthouses, which can be quite fine actually – dark, but clean and with mosquito-nets.  For the price of about two dollars, we certainly can’t complain.  But then there was the night we spent in Korodiga, which our map had assured us was a decent-sized town.  It isn’t a decent-sized town.  But there is a guesthouse – it just happens to be the private room of the proprietor of the local bar.

He was nice enough (or drunk enough) to let us take it over for a night though.  I’m not sure if we should thank him for that or not.  We settled in to our beds around 9, having reconciled ourselves to the desiccated frog-carcass in the middle of the floor, to the insect nest on the wall at the foot of the bed, and to the 700° (Celsius!) temperature in the room only to hear a heavy scampering on the roof.  I promised Anna it was something outside, nothing to worry about, and she actually believed me until she turned on her flashlight…

On the ceiling beams above our head there was a family of rats peering down at us, not scared or the least bit concerned, just seemingly wondering when we would turn off that pesky light so they could jump down the bed and get to work…

DSC01619Anna announced that she wasn’t going to sleep that night, but we both drifted off some.  Later we heard the rats running between our bags, and we lit our lights again, which scared them off.  Anna announced once more that she wasn’t going to sleep – but then somehow we drifted off and we were both deep in dreams when the alarm went off.  Which just goes to show I guess…

All of that is behind us now though – it’s amazing how the body can forget!  We reached the Indian Ocean at Bagamoyo, and then worked our way down the coast to Dar where we have fallen into the ideal house-sitting situation, and our only sleep problem is when the power goes out and the ceiling fans go off and the house starts to heat up.

We have fallen into a great volunteer situation as well, helping out around the office of ATD fourth world, a wonderful organization so different from all other NGOs that it really doesn’t even deserve that epithet.  We’re planning on resting here for a few weeks and then heading to Zanzibar and then on to Malawi.  We’ll write more before we leave, and we’ll make a concerted effort from now on to post more regularly.

In the mean time, we’ll also be updating some things on the site over the next few days, so feel free to check them out – and as always, don’t hesitate to leave a comment!  All the messages and encouragements we get really make a difference – thank you all!

Otherwise: so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye!

IMG_5122

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Rwanda

(Photos available here)

(Practical information for cyclists available here)

It’s been a while since our last update, sorry!

We are writing now from Dar es Salaam, where we are doing some house sitting and volunteering with ATD Fourth World, but more on that later, maybe even in another post – it certainly won’t do to start with the end.  One should start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews would have it…

DSC01460So, those of you who read the last post would no doubt be shocked to hear that we were eager to get out of Uganda!  From Kabale, we biked south to the border and on to Kigali in one long day.

Still, the difference between the two countries was hard to see at first – the over-cultivated, banana and eucalyptus-lined hills of Southwest Uganda being replaced by the over-cultivated, banana and eucalyptus-lined hills of Northern Rwanda…

We had expected at least that the language would change, Rwanda having been colonized by Belgians and thus having picked up French as an official language along the way.  But actually there was no luck there even – in case you haven’t heard, President Kagame (who speaks little French himself, having lived most of his life in Uganda) has now declared Rwanda an English-speaking country, complete with membership in the British commonwealth.

Which is not to say that the signs of Belgian colonization were completely missing: Rwandan frites are almost definitely the best in Africa, and just try to use a toilet in Kigali without paying off Madame Pipi!

As for the language though, we had been somewhat prepared when we met a young Rwandan in Kabale who was completing her studies in Uganda in order to learn some English: the change in law obliging her to learn the language for her studies though neither she nor anyone in her family nor any of her teachers in Rwanda spoke a word of it.  But the fact that people addressed us on the street in English was still something of a shock – since when do East African laws translate quite so quickly into action?

Well, since Paul Kagame took power, we soon learned!DSC01464

Rules in Rwanda, whether that all the motorcycle taxis have to wear helmets and uniforms, that bikes are not allowed in Kigali, or that political life will function without ethnic labels, are enforced – though this goes nowhere to explaining why a president would change his country’s official language…

The frustration with French is easy to understand of course – between the legacy of Belgian colonialism and French support for the Hutu dictators and genocidaires who came after – but why suddenly change the language to English?

Again, this is part of the New Rwanda, and so is pure Kagame, at once a way of giving the finger to the French as a way of embracing the Americans and the Brits, who are more than happy of course to support a Tutsi dictator if he happens to share a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo…

But no, I feel a rant coming on…

I’m sorry, every update Anna and I decide to just stick to the chipper cheery travel writing only to find ourselves slipping off into rants.  It’s hard though not to rant sometimes in this part of the world, where people’s lives and sufferings are so entwined with the political machinations of nations and elites as far removed from their existence as possible.  Which is not to say ‘the people here are so poor!’ – actually, if anything, since we’ve been traveling in East Africa, we’ve been struck by the fact that most people here are not so poor – at least not so poor as I, who had never been to Africa before, had expected.  In many cases, people are not nearly as desperate as the urban poor in Europe and the United States.

And yet, they could be so much richer, there is so much wealth here!  Whether it’s gold or diamonds or copper or coltan, billions of dollars are taken from under Africa’s soils every year with a pittance falling to the people who live off that soil.

DSC01465What is there to say when you learn that the International Space Station was made with coltan most likely mined by slaves in eastern Congo?  Most likely through a mining company which funded a local militia which used the money to buy weapons and carry out ethnic cleansing?  All of it  reported in the west of course as ‘chaos’ and inexplicable ‘tribal violence’?

Chaos?  No, this is where jewelry comes from.

Which is to say nothing of the environmental cost: the United States spends billions of dollars of taxpayer money each year to clean up toxic mines in the Rocky Mountains – this cleanup will go on forever, and is a result of almost all mineral extraction – and yet no one seems to ask who is going to pay for the cleanup in Tanzania or in Congo.  If the United States government can’t get mining companies to pay to clean up their own mess, how will the Congolese, or the Tanzanians do it?

Anyway, that ain’t half the rant I feel in me, but it will do for now.  Rwanda, where the Kagame dictatorship is so tangible, brought so much of this to the surface for us, and I can’t quite talk about the country without it.  We felt such a tension in the air there – whether from the text messages that are sent to all cell phones to announce the timing of political rallies, or the monuments to the genocide which line the countryside, or the grenades which went off in Kigali after we had left, or the prisoners, alleged genocidaires, still being carted around the country each day in their orange and pink jumpsuits to complete public works – the reconciliation Kagame is so often applauded for having brought about…

In Kigali we couchsurfed with a young Belgian teacher who helped us get a good grip on the country.  We spent a few days there, hoping to do a loop through the west, but that strange tension just got to us somewhere along the way, and after Anna’s test for bilharzia came back negative (yay!), we decided to just get on towards Tanzania – hadn’t we heard it was mostly flat?  And weren’t we supposed to be heading south anyway?  And wasn’t there a ‘rainy season’ supposed to start soon?DSC01472

We took two days biking to the border, which was a pleasure since Rwandans proved to be such friendly, welcoming people – the country was different from Uganda for us in that way as well.  For the first time since Kenya, we had adults actually discourage children from staring at us and laughing at us – shooing them away and scolding them.

But Rwanda is a densely populated country as well, and we learned along the way that we are just not fans of biking in densely populated countries.  By the end we were almost desperate to get some privacy, to spend at least five minutes along the road without being surrounded by people…

DSC01547And so we biked on to Tanzania, the road, of course, well-paved, one of the best we have ridden on so far, recently refurbished by the Chinese government, extending from the Congolese border at Goma to the Tanzanian border and on through the gold mines of Kahama and the diamond mines of Shinyanga  to the Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam…

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Uganda

(Photos pour l’Ouganda disponible ici)

(Des infos pratiques pour les cyclistes sont disponibles ici)

(Photos for Uganda are available here)

(Practical information for cyclists available here)

DSC01218Borders make a difference.  Biking from Kenya into Uganda is like biking into a different world, though only subtly so, like in the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode when the main character doesn’t quite realize something is horribly wrong – the people look largely the same, the infrastructure is all but identical, even the advertisements on the billboards seemed part of the same campaign – but still… it’s different somehow…

It was only as we left Busia and pedaled off into a stretch of forest that I figured out just why: Uganda is green.

And then the stretch of forest continued on and I figured out the other difference: it’s empty.

Which is not to say Kenya is some kind of overpopulated wasteland, it’s not, it’s really a beautiful country, a country we came to appreciate more in fact the more time we spent in Uganda.  But then there we were, just inside the Ugandan border pedaling under an arcade of trees, baboons running away from our approach, small unmanned market stalls with jackfruit the size of my torso for sale every few kilometers…

We spent a rest day in Jinja, lazing in anonymity and wondering why we hadn’t come to Uganda sooner.  Then there was another stretch of forest between Jinja and Kampala and then Kampala itself, a modern city with Mzungu everywhere you looked.  We spent a week in Kampala recovering from a stomach bug and over-eating with some recovering Congolese aid workers we met.  But then the road was calling again – all that green!  all that empty space! – and we headed north towards Masindi, the town at the entrance to Murchison Falls National Park.

There was a bit of a change in our biking routine at this point.  Rather than picking a set number of kilometers and killing ourselves to make sure we got there no matter what the terrain held in store, we started biking 5 hours a day instead.  Whether that is 100 kilometers or 5 kilometers, it is about as long as we can be in our saddles in comfort and still arrive at our destination with some energy left over to actually see the place.  It also means we can bike more days consecutively without a rest day, and so in the long run we think it lets us move faster.

The genius of the new technique was proven just north of Kampala, when we stopped our first day after 5 hours and 15 minutes of biking before the modest little compound of John and his family.  This was our first time asking for hospitality in Africa, and it went easily enough – no sooner had we stopped our bikes and decided to go ask if we could plant our tent somewhere than John was out on the road shouting “Welcome!  Welcome!  You are welcome! Please stay!” and hurrying us and our bikes into his front yard as if he had been expecting us.

Since we had only done 80 kilometers that day, we had enough energy left to follow as John gave us the tour of his home and small plot of land and took us over to the stagnant pond an NGO had constructed as their local water source.  While we washed, he sent his children out to tell the neighbors of our arrival (as if they didn’t know) and then while we ate dinner we greeted the entire village, from children to grandparents, who had come over to see the Mzungu on bikes.  In the morning, they all came back once more to watch us head out, and we biked away with a few stalks of sugarcane tucked in our bag as parting gifts.DSC01304

And so we were glad for the new system, particularly as heading north the roads deteriorated (including at one point a five minute canoe ride across a crocodile-infested river (it sounds more dramatic than it was, trust me)) and the hills got worse.  Uganda, we realized then, is also hilly.

Masindi is the entry point to Murchison falls National Park.  We didn’t go to the park though, feeling that there would be no problem seeing nature for free in Uganda.  Instead, we headed on to Hoima with the intention of biking along a road that looked on the map as if it stretched along the top of the escarpment looking out on Lake Albert.  In the event it may have been on the top of the escarpment or not, we couldn’t really tell since we couldn’t see the lake or, more importantly to us, the Blue Mountains of Congo on its far border.  Eventually we gave up on both and taking the straight shot that our map assured us would take us back to the main road, we slid our way down a steep hill (the escarpment, we later learned) only to reach a fork…

By then, our five hours were just about up, and so when a passing driver assured us we were lost, but that the lake was just ten kilometers farther, we decided to take the fork, and we wound up in a small campsite just outside the fishing village of Sebagoro (not on the map).  The manager of the campsite, Godwyn, took us for a walk through the village after we set up our tent.  The people were mostly Congolese, he told us, they had come over from the other side of the lake during the war and had been given some land by the Ugandan government – a little compensation from Museveni for having invaded and plundered their country – never let it be said the man doesn’t have a heart…

The village was a small circle of thatched huts, and the children chasing us shouted “Mundu,” which Godwyn told us was the Lingala equivalent of “Mzungu.”  Good to know.  Along the water, old men were patching nets by hand and fishermen were poling their boats to shore, getting ready to float out during the night with their lanterns.  Times were difficult though, Godwyn told us.  The fish had moved over to the Congolese side of the lake recently, scared off by explosions from the oil exploration going on on the Ugandan side.

DSC01319Yes, oil has been found here, directly under Lake Albert in fact.  The town of Sebagoro included a newly built school – a gift from Tullow Oil, the company, along with Heritage Oil, doing the exploration.  Oil, to the tune of over 400 million barrels, has been found in Murchison Falls and Kabwoya National Parks as well.  They haven’t quite begun pumping yet – the oil in the parks in particular is somewhat problematic.  According to a Ugandan newspaper, The Independent, the government is legally prohibited from drilling within the parks, and even from exploring for oil; though apparently this hasn’t stopped them – the Ugandan Wildlife Authority has said it supports the drilling.  Meanwhile, in Kabwoya, oil workers have been accused of responsibility for the the upswing in poaching recently, including the killing of the only male reedbuck antelope in the whole park, recently imported from another park in order to make the herd self-sustaining.  Its head was found in the possession of a Tullow Oil contractor.  So much for that effort.

Maybe, we began to wonder, Uganda really isn’t as green as it seems…

From Sebagoro we went on to Kyenjojo and the tarmac road, passing through an unexpected stand of tropical forest – a reserve, and a welcome change from the desiccated range land all around the lake shore.  On the far side, stopping in a small village for a soda we were asked: “Are you here to exploit the oil?”  Clearly we were not the first Mzungu to pass through town.

In Fort Portal we couch surfed and then took a break for a week to visit a permaculture site in Southern Uganda and to renew our visas in Kampala.  Talking with our hosts in Fort Portal, Tom and Kathleen, a Belgian couple living in Uganda for two years while Kathleen works for an NGO promoting organic farming techniques and Tom volunteers at the local botanical gardens, our vision of Green Uganda took another blow.  They both seemed frustrated and disenchanted with Uganda and the development sector.  Too many organizations working to achieve the same goals, all developed in Europe or the US, with little idea of what would make sense or be effective on the ground.  And meanwhile, a sentiment echoed by every NGO worker we have met over the last six weeks, whether from Uganda or Congo or elsewhere, most of the local Ugandans are more interested in extorting money from the funding organizations than in actually changing their country according to the organizations’ goals.

Organic farming, permaculture, those are priorities brought in from Europe and the US and if that is what it takes to get the funding flowing then that is what it takes.  An organization formed to promote the use of dioxin in baby formula and to encourage female genital mutilation would probably have just as easy a time staffing itself and getting running on the ground though.  Fortunately, it would probably be just as ineffective.

The permaculture site we visited was a similar story.  We reached it by bus from Kampala, bumping along the road all the way and wondering how people ever manage to travel by public transport – we’ll take a good Brooks leather saddle over a plastic-covered bus seat any day.

The project we visited was at the Sabina School, and it has been put in place at the initiative of the American NGO Children of Uganda to generate both food and money for the school while involving the children in more environmental education.  The design for the site was done by Australians Dan Palmer and Amanda Cuyler, and when we arrived a permaculture design course had just finished and there was even talk of trying to develop a permanent permaculture center on the land.

Certainly the work there was impressive – more on that is forthcoming in the permaculture section – and we weren’t there for long enough to to get a sense of how it all effects the lives of the children living at the school, but when an American teaching at the school told us that the vegetables in the garden generally rot during the school year without being harvested since they are just not the kind of vegetables Ugandans eat, and when we saw the banana trees growing in an area that had been otherwise designated during the design, we were left again with that feeling that something was off…

An upside of the visit down there though was meeting Eric, a French participant in the design course who we had seen speak at the French permaculture festival this past summer.  He is a wizard when it comes to botany and ecology and a lot of his ideas actually had a pretty strong impact on us.  It all makes us eager to have our own land one day – but in the meantime we are satisfying ourselves with some guerrilla gardening, planting all the seeds from the fruit we eat in places they’re likely to survive.

Part of the something that was off in Ssanje might have been Anna though, who was diagnosed with malaria.  A further consultation in Kampala revealed that she didn’t have malaria in fact, and that, in the words of the doctor in Kampala, who launched a thirty minute rant the moment Anna announced that she had tested positive to malaria in Ssanje, “The average Ugandan doctor can’t tell a parasite from a platelet.”  The problem, he told us, is the education system.  They are pushed to memorize and memorize, never to think…

Anyway, we had a lot in our heads at this point, which is generally a sign we need to get our butts back in the saddle – nothing like some rolling Ugandan hills to keep you from thinking too much.  Once Anna was feeling better, we set out.

From Fort Portal, the rolling hills and dirt roads continued.  We crosDSC01438sed Kibale Forest again, hoping to see chimps – no luck.

We then followed the eastern shore of Lake George along some seriously terrible roads, and headed the length of Queen Elizabeth National Park, hoping to see elephants and lions.  Just as we were leaving, after seventy kilometers of basically no animals (we saw one buffalo – who sees one buffalo?), we saw two elephants playing in a river.  As for lions – no luck.

In Ishasha, we took a rest day and talked for a long time with Michael, manager of the campsite where we were staying. Michael is a teacher by training but he now works at the campsite since it was impossible to earn a living in the classroom.  He echoed many of our Kampala doctor’s sentiments about Ugandan education actually, and we realized that this maybe went a long way to explaining how distant we felt from most Ugandans.  In Kenya, in almost every town it seemed we would meet someone who spoke flawless English and who had enough education to be able to talk about the world with even a critical spirit – both towards Africa and towards Europe and the US.  In Uganda though, Michael was really the first person we met who could explain to us what was going on, the first Ugandan from whom we really learned a lot about Uganda.  Suffice it to say, he’s the best campsite manager we’ve ever met.

Not least of all since that night he invited us to the wedding of one of his workers.  With his assurances that dirty clothes were totally appropriate wedding attire (white people, we came to realize, could come naked and still be treated as the most important guests), we left the campsite that evening along the rainy road to where a tent had been built of surplus UNHCR tarps in the front yard of the groom’s home.

The wedding itself had actually already happened, what we were there for was the arrival of the bride at her new home – the party, essentially.

The bride was supposed to arrive at 19:00, and we were seated in the position of honor along one of the benches under the tent, next to Michael and the groom’s father, by just after 19:00.

But the bride didn’t come…

The groom’s father gave us sodas and then eventually we were told the bride was waiting for everyone to have eaten before she would come.  So we all were served rice and goat stew and when we had eaten our full, the plates were cleared and…

The bride didn’t come…

Michael went for more information – even for ‘Africa Time’ things were getting a bit late by now.  Apparently there had been a motorcycle accident on the road, but everyone was okay, the bride had just scraped her arm some.  It was the rain and the mud – she was riding on the back of a motorcycle in her wedding dress.  She would be there soon, we were told.

Though by 23:00… the bride still hadn’t come.

Michael went again to ask for information, and it turned out the bride actually had come, that she was there outside the tent in fact, but that her parents were trying to renegotiate the dowry, and that unless the groom could cough up the equivalent of 15 US dollars, he wouldn’t be able to marry the woman he loved – the wedding would be called off.

Michael, the only Ugandan there who could have afforded such an exorbitant sum, offered to pay them if they came by the campsite the next day, and the wedding was suddenly back on, with the bride ushered into the room, stern-faced from all the negotiations and the near cancellation of the event.

The groom’s family gave a series of speeches to prove the groom’s worth as a man, pointing to the mzungu who had come especially for his wedding because he was so important in the world.  Michael spoke as well, and after referring once more to our presence, he managed to get us excused from the rest of the event – we felt lame for leaving, but it was almost midnight and with three cokes in our stomachs we both desperately needed a bathroom…

Fifteen dollars…  The wedding had almost been called off for 15 dollars…

The number kept in our heads as we biked since the next leg of our trip took us through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, where every day 24 Mzungu pay 500 dollars each to spend an hour watching a gorilla (not counting the cost of guides, transport, lodging, food, tips, etc.).

We had talked about indulging in this too, I’ll admit it, but then the realization of just how extravagant a sum that is turned us off – that and the realization of just how expensive traveling in Kenya and Uganda can be…

Instead, we just wanted to bike through the park to see the forest.  We have become somewhat addicted to tropical forests over the past few weeks – there is simply nothing like them back where we come from – so much life, so densely packed.  Between the trees, the air, the humidity and the bird calls, they are really astounding places where – at least for two burgeoning anarchists such as ourselves – it’s hard not to be awed.

Moreover, no matter our initial image of Green Uganda, the forest reserves are actually the only real places of wilderness left here; right at their boundaries the endless chain of small farming plots begins again.

Almost every inch of land in Uganda that is not a reserve is under this kind of cultivation.  We spent many days biking past forests being burned to be prepared for planting, past steep sloping fields which were left bare as if their owners were just trying to have it all eroded by the next heavy rainfall.  And all of this in a country whose population is set to double in the next ten to twenty years.  It’s hard to imagine that any of the forests we have biked through will still be around then.  Of course, subsistence agriculture could take the place of the extensive tea plantations we biked through, or the endless fields of sugarcane or coffee trees, but those are export crops, those fields belong to Europeans and Americans, and so I think we all know that they won’t be the ones cut down to make room for food…

Though actually, maybe we just love forests so much because horrible as it sounds, when we bike in them we don’t have to see quite so many locals.  Particularly around Bwindi, the harassment we got along the road (more on that below) was overwhelming, with hordes of children chasing us up hills shouting “Give me a money” and kicking our bags when we refused.

This kind of reception is annoying anywhere, but when it comes as you are dragging a loaded touring bike up a steep hill along a loose gravel road where you have to either ride in the narrow rut carved by the last rain storm or along the sandy edge where your tires get no purchase, it can be downright infuriating.  Suffice it to say, Ugandan English has added some colorful new vocabulary over the past few weeks thanks to me.

Fortunately though we learned that if you slam on your breaks and turn quickly, the kids all run screaming.  They’re scared of mzungu in fact – something it is nice to use to your advantage from time to time.

And we did use it from time to time, particularly as we biked up into Bwindi from Butagota.  And then again as we biked back down to Butagota from Bwindi, when we realized that one of my large bags had fallen off somewhere along the way.  Just our tent and all of my clothes, nothing important…  Fortunately an old man had brought it back to the police station in town, and so aside from having to spend the night in Butagota, we were quite lucky.

Still, we had lost a day, and the next day we had to bike back up past the same children to Bwindi.  It rained through the afternoon and we kicked ourselves for not having made it through the day before.  We spent the night in Ruhija, the whole village shrouded in the clouds.

The next morning was clearer and we hoped to make an early start to get to Kabale, but then our breakfast was late and the woman at the campsite had to run around the village to find us change and everything was taking so long.  Even the Brits traveling by car to see the gorillas got out of the campsite before us.

When we were finally on the road, the hills kept on, the road in its same deteriorated state.  We passed the mzungu who were gathering to track the gorillas and rode on along the public road until soon there were no people around, just us and the forest.  Anna was biking in front then and as I rounded a bend I saw her stopped on her bike and pointing to the side of the road, stuttering “Guh, Guh, Guh,” and I pedaled up to her, and there it was, a silver-back mountain gorilla sitting in the bush next to the road munching on some leaves.  We parked our bikes and watched him for a time – there was another gorilla uphill from us, another down below that we couldn’t see, and they all grunted to each other softly as if to just make sure they were all still there.

IMG_4701A ranger came eventually and hurried us along (“There is no stopping on this road,” he told us, though everyone we have related this to who knows something about the area agrees that this means “No stopping around gorillas for mzungu who have not paid 500 dollars.”) but we didn’t mind so much anymore.  Even the harassment which continued on the other side of the park and the standard shock when the forest was replaced by scattered stands of eucalyptus weren’t so bad.  Every few minutes we would slide next to each other along the road and say “Imagine if we hadn’t lost the bag!” or “Imagine if the breakfast hadn’t been late!”

And so in the end we did see some Ugandan wilderness, some of the little bit that remains.

Sometimes, we find ourselves wishing we had done this trip thirty or forty years ago: imagine what the forests were like then – and we could have crossed Somalia when it was green, we could have crossed Afghanistan when it was peaceful, and Iran and Iraq, and…

But all of this is senseless – it’s just another expression of every traveler’s need to feel that they’re seeing something authentic, something real.  What’s going on in Uganda is authentic though, it is real.  In the end, we’re glad we came through here at such an interesting time; in twenty years, there’s no doubt other travelers will be thinking, “Man, I wish we’d come through here in 2010, back when there were still forests and still gorillas…”

We are writing all of this from the island of Byoona Amagara, in one of the side channels of Lake Bunyoni, tucked in the mountains west of Kabale not far from the Rwanda border.  This is one of the most peaceful places either of us have ever been, and it is a good place to sit sorting through photos and writing up a little text and otherwise just reading and trying what little yoga we can remember from Cecile’s class.  We will head to Rwanda in a few days and then on from there to Tanzania.

Really though we are here to recover.  The last few weeks have been pretty hard traveling.  Part of this is the endless chain of rolling hills – all of it accessed by sandy dirt roads where your tires spin out without gaining any purchase as you try to crawl your way up and the cars spray a cloud of dust that leaves you blind for a minute after they pass.  “There are two seasons in Uganda,” a cab driver in Kampala had told us, “Rain and Dust.”

Part of this also has been the interactions with the Ugandan people.  We have met many very nice, kind people here, and we have been welcomed into their homes and even invited to their weddings.  Unfortunately though, we have far more often been laughed at, made fun of, and harassed for money.  Climbing a 30 kilometer hill on a washed out rutted dirt track is all the more difficult when you’re doing it amidst a horde of children shouting “Give me a money!” and kicking and grabbing at your bags when you say no.  And it is not just children – we have had well-dressed adults addressing us too with just a hand held out and a “Give me money” said in the same tone your father used to use to tell you to “Go to your room.”

This isn’t everyone’s experience of Uganda.  Most travelers we talk to seem to rave about the welcome they have received here (“And the people are SO nice!”).  Most travelers we talk to also seem to spend their time going from tourist site to tourist site, and to rarely interact with Ugandans who are not hotel workers or guides.  When we meet other tourists who travel as we do or similarly, they seem to share our impression – many of them seem to be on the same island we are on now, recovering before heading to Rwanda.

It’s sad to leave a country with a bad taste in our mouths like that, and of course there are a host of reasons why people treat us so poorly, many of them perfectly legitimate; but all of that would be too long to articulate here.  I should mention on the upside though that a large number of Ugandan children seem to think I look like Jesus (white guy, beard), which I take as a significant improvement on the Chuck Norris comparisons I got all the time in Kenya.

Part of the hardship of the past six weeks has also come from being far from home though.  I became an uncle in January for one, which is wonderful news, and yet I still haven’t met my nephew.  I hope only that Charlie understands and won’t hold it against me for too long.

For Anna’s part, her godfather died the same day she was (mis)diagnosed with malaria.  Adrien was a big part of her life, and it is hard to imagine that he won’t be coming to visit us and that if we went back to Belgium now, he wouldn’t be there.

But there is nothing to be done really.  We are here now and we have many kilometers ahead of us.  Births, deaths, nothing for it but to just keep pedaling…

Posted in Uganda | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Mfangano

(Photos disponibles ici)

(Des infos pratiques pour les cyclistes sont disponibles ici)


(Photos available here)

(Practical information for cyclists available here)

Hello from Kisumu once more, where we’re back from Mfangano a little earlier than expected.  Everything went great on the island, but the combination of torrential rains and sleeping in a tent did send us packing in the end.  Still, it was an unforgettable experience and we’re glad we went.

To get to the island, we biked south from Kisumu and around the bay to Mbita.  It was two days along the worst dirt (mud, more appropriately) roads we had seen yet, including a mistake with directions that doubled our distance on the second day and put our marriage on the line – all culminating in the confused stares from people we met in Mbita and Mfangano: “There’s a ferry from Kisumu you know, and a paved road – it’s only an hour by Matatu…”

Well thanks. Now let us never speak of the shortcut again.

But the ‘shortcut’ wasn’t all bad since it gave us the chance to meet Erin and Paul, a couple working with Suba Environmental Education Kenya (SEEK), a Christian environmental organization in Mbita that took pity on us at the end of a long day and offered us a place to camp in their officially closed campsite.  They even cooked us dinner.

DSC01160Sometimes if you leave things up to chance they work out pretty well.  The next day for instance, we got on the boat to Mfangano not quite knowing where we were going: through an e-mail miscommunication, we weren’t sure Richard, our host, was expecting us.

But then again fortune favored the lost – crammed next to us on the boat was a friend of Richard’s, a nurse at the health center on the island who took it upon himself to explain to the boatmen where to drop us off.  He even walked us to Richard’s house.  Ruth, Richard’s wife, seemed surprised to see us – Richard as well we think, but he didn’t show it – he’s a pretty laid-back guy.

That first day we learned more about the island and the project Richard is working on – Organic Health Response.  It’s not quite the Permaculture eco-village we had expected, but it’s a very cool project nonetheless, working to build a community response to the local HIV/AIDS epidemic.  The infection rate on Mfangano is officially over 30% (and actually may be closer to 40%), making it one of the highest rates in the world.  As someone told us later in our visit: “Here, no one cares about Malaria, it’s only AIDS that matters.”

Why such a high rate?  Well partially because the area is littered with small islands and so any sickness gets around quick.  But the social and public health catastrophe that AIDS represents is also (and for those of you who have read Edward Goldsmith, this should come as no surprise) directly related to the destruction of the local environment – in particular through the introduction of the nile perch and massive deforestation…

Now okay, I don’t want to get too historical on all y’all, but it is worth a little digression here…

The nile perch is not native to Lake Victoria – it was introduced by the British in 1954 in order to create a commercial fishing industry.  The fish though are carnivores – even cannibals – and lacking a natural non-human predator in the lake they have thrived, bringing hundreds of other species of fish to or near to extinction – while themselves growing to enormous sizes of up to 250 kg.

The nile perch are caught for export mainly since no locals can afford the larger ones, and Lake Victoria Nile Perch are a major ingredient in fish sticks and white-fish all over the world.  If you eat fish, you have probably eaten nile perch caught in Lake Victoria – it is probably even for sale labeled as such at your local supermarket.

This brought the cash economy to the region.  Fishermen are paid each day in cash – an obvious incentive over farming, where months of planning and preparation and capital are needed for an unsure result. It brought migrants to the region as well, and the migrants, in addition to putting more pressure on local forests and food supplies, brought HIV/AIDS along with them.DSC01190

In the past, when fishing was small scale and local, it could be combined with small-scale farming and people could subsist.  Today though, as fishing has reached an industrial level, fish stocks are decreasing, and as fishermen spend more time in their boats to earn a living they spend less time on their land.  The economy now relies totally on fish and the cash it brings in to buy food.

The other aspect of this whole problem is deforestation.  Because there is no refrigeration in the area, fish have traditionally been preserved through drying.  Yet the nile perch is too fat to be dried and must be smoked, thus using more fuel – and thus cutting down more trees since fuel on Mfangano means charcoal.   The huge forests which once covered the island are now nearly nonexistent, only still standing in a few groves of sacred trees (another nice note for you Goldsmith fans).

Some of the islands around Mfangano are completely deforested.  They are just piles of rocks in the lake which serve as village, latrine, kitchen, garden…  All cooking fuel has to be imported and almost all food as well, with the forest on Mfangano being cut to provide fuel for smaller islands.  And then with deforestation comes soil erosion, drought, and desertification, making farming even harder than before; making fishing seem even easier.

So what happens on those treeless islands?  The men fish.  The women?  Those without husbands rely on the only opportunity available to earn money to buy food – prostitution.  This is the fish for sex trade, and it’s a vicious cycle: the more women are forced to turn to prostitution (without condoms of course), the more HIV/AIDS spreads, the more orphans and widows there are, the more they are forced to turn to prostitution, the more…  Combine all this with declining fish stocks, which mean that even if fish is still available for export, in order to get it locally you have to have a ‘special relationship’ with a fisherman, and well, you get a perfect environmental/social/health storm yielding a 40% HIV/AIDS rate.

You can see where something has to stop, and that is where Richard’s organization comes in, working to restore the sense of community and respect for the environment and to empower island residents to take responsibility for their own futures.  It’s also pretty clear (to us at least) that permaculture can play a role in all this.  What could an island facing a lack of farmers and a huge deforestation problem need more than food forests and do-nothing agriculture?

But anyway, enough of the history lesson – in fact, I’m kind of hesitant to mention all of that.  It’s not that it’s not important or interesting, but it’s just that it gives the impression we too often have of Kenya that it’s a country torn by misery where people are crawling in the dirt and barely finding a reason to wake up in the morning and face their horrible horrible lives…  Poverty porn, if you will.

The reality is, people here are living, just like anywhere else – they are getting by with their families and their friends and there is just as much laughter here as anywhere else in the world.

Once we got settled, we spent our nights sleeping in our tent in the front yard of Richard’s temporary house – 25 square meters rented just outside the village of Sena.  Richard had just bought a new piece of land when we arrived, and was in the process of building the family’s future home there.  In the mean time, the small house was enough for Richard and Ruth, their three children, and three cousins in from out of town.

IMG_4083Richard’s plans for his new land included not only the house though, which was almost done when we left, but a vision of a huge organic farm similar to that of his uncle Joel, farther up the island where most WWOOFers stay.

“Trees,” Richard told us when we asked what he wanted to plant.  “I want lots of trees.”

And so with surprisingly little cajoling – Richard really is a laid-back guy – we set out to work with him to make a design for his land.  (There’s more information on that in the permaculture section, so we won’t bore you here.)

For the first week or so, work entailed waking up around 7:00 and heading out to the site to dig holes  for a perimeter line of trees.  Around 9:30, one of Richard’s cousins would bring us breakfast and tea; around 11:00 Richard would announce it was too hot to work and we would head back home.  The walks to and from the site always took far longer than the kilometer or so of distance would normally have needed – everyone we passed had to be greeted and pleasantries had to be exchanged.  In the morning though, when the air was cooler and with the birds singing in the trees along the way, it wasn’t hard to take the time for it; mornings might have been the most beautiful time of day on the island.

During lunch, we would sift through all the permaculture stuff we have on our computer to come up with ideas for the design, and then in the afternoon we would go back to the site to dig more holes, maybe plant some trees.  At around 7:00, as the sun disappeared behind the mountain and the water to the east started glowing red, we would head home for the day; evenings might have been the most beautiful time of day on the island.

When Ruth (who worked at a salon / computer cafe in town in addition to cooking, cleaning, and taking care of three children) got home, she would cook dinner with the cousins and the whole family would eat together – nine of us including Richard’s cousin Eric, who worked alongside us on the farm.  By 10:00, Anna and I would be in bed; the others would stay up late watching Kenyan music videos or Nigerian movies on the generator-powered TV.  At night, the fishermen on the lake float lanterns out with their nets to attract fish – it’s illegal, but it’s beautiful, and the water glows with the specs of light almost like a mirror of the stars above; come to think of it, night was the most beautiful time of day on the island.

And that was how it went until the rains came…

We had been under the impression  the rainy season was over, but apparently the island hadn’t got the memo.  Just before Christmas we had our first big storm, and then Christmas day even after we had slaughtered a sheep and the women had cooked for twenty to thirty guests, the rain turned the roads into soup and no one came.  The holiday was rained out. IMG_3888

We were left to eat as much of the food (roast mutton, mutton stew, mutton pilau, fried nile perch, fried termites, butternut squash (Anna’s contribution), frites (a la Belge aussi),and a dozen other things I’m forgetting) as we could ourselves since with no refrigerator nothing keeps.

And the rains continued, usually pouring around 4:00 in the morning and then continuing gray and drizzly until ten or so when things would begin to dry out.

Through the second week, we had to let up on much of our work on the farm since the land was almost totally clay and clay soils shouldn’t be worked when they’re wet.  We left a swale half-dug, which was a sad sight to behold.  We worked on the design instead though, and played with Richard’s children when we needed a break.

We were pretty used to life on the island at this point.  There is no running water – all washing and bathing happens in the lake, and additional water is brought to the house in buckets by the women several times a day.  There is no electricity either, though you’ll see plenty of electric wires in the photos.  The island is wired for electricity and even has a power plant that has just never run – a little problem of vanishing funding all too common in Kenya.

Really the only hard part of life on the island for us was the reception by the locals.  Not that people weren’t nice – we met many very welcoming, curious, and friendly people, and like we said, Richard and his family are fantastic.  For most people though, we were a curiosity to be heckled (in Luo ideally), stared at, and laughed at.  Spending your day digging holes beside a road where passing pedestrians stop to shout at you can get a little tiring to say the least.  Even watching the island’s soccer tournament became impossible when we couldn’t see the field for the children surrounding us and laughing.

It’s somewhat understandable though – there aren’t many Mzungu who pass through Mfangano.  Or at least not that are visible to the locals.  There is actually a very nice resort on the island, and several times a day we would hear small propeller planes coming in to land on the airstrip, mostly flying direct from the Maasai Mara (the Kenyan side of the Serengeti).  From the airstrip though, they then walk to the shore and a speedboat takes them to the resort where they spend 500 dollars a night to visit a secluded island paradise.

The resort (with the ironic title of “Fisherman’s Camp” since no actual fisherman would ever have been granted entrance) is supposedly owned by a Mzungu, but no one on the island is sure since no one on the island works there: the employees come from Nairobi, the security guards are Maasai.  No one from the island is let in and none of the money spent there reaches the local community.  Ahh Kenyan tourism…

Mzungu who walk around are a bit rare on Mfangano then and we never quite got used to all the attention.

After Christmas, the rains kept up and upon waking up one morning with water in our tent we decided the time had come to leave.  Our actual departure was a bit rushed, but we made our boat and only left a few essentials behind (who needs a map anyway?).

DSC01201On the way back, we visited our friends at SEEK in Mbita, and then took the ferry across the bay and biked to Kisumu in one afternoon.  Now back in our favorite city in Kenya (where we haven’t heard the word Mzungu in three whole days!), we’re running lots of errands and eating lots of Indian food in preparation for leaving tomorrow for Uganda.

From there, our plans are flexible as usual (we might try to visit a permaculture site southwest of Kampala at the end of the month) but you can all rest assured we’ll keep you informed with more interminable updates and incoherent rants.

Thanks as always for all the messages and e-mails of support.  We hope you all had a nice holiday – and happy new year!

Posted in Kenya | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Western Kenya

(Des infos pratiques pour les cyclistes sont disponibles ici)

(Sorry guys, but the connection here is a bit of a pain and so there are no photos in the text.  If you want to check them out though, there is a slideshow available here.)

(Practical information for cyclists is available here)

Well, so much has happened since our last update that it’s hard to know where to begin.  How about with this: we are in Kisumu, Kenya now, just a bike day and a half from the canoe to Mfangano Island where we’ll be WWOOFing.  Things couldn’t be going better – we are happy and healthy and all is well.

Though actually it wasn’t always clear things would go so well – between the delicious breakfast chez Geraldine in London and our dreams of free and easy Kenyan riding, there was one little obstacle: Heathrow…

We won’t go into all the details here, I don’t think anyone wants to endure a blow-by-blow account of every day we’ve been on the road, but one bit of advice for other travelers: if you plan on bringing bikes on an Air France flight – no matter how reassuring the ‘official’ policy on bikes posted on their website might be, and no matter how reassuring the nice people you talk to on the phone might be, you’d do well to get there 4 hours before your flight – ’cause that policy, well, it’s not so much their policy…  And actually that’s not half the grief they gave us, but we did eventually make it out and after a sleepless night in Charles de Gaulle Airport we were on our way to Nairobi.

We spent three nights in the city (Nairobbery as it is affectionately known) before finally mustering up the energy to escape.  Honestly, we were kind of intimidated by the city’s reputation, though it bears note that we had only good experiences there – we saw no crimes and we only met kind, helpful people.

From Nairobi we biked up the Rift Valley to lakes Naivasha, Elementeita, Nakuru, Bogoria, and Baringo.  Out of Nairobi, and really until we got north of Nakuru, the road was packed with trucks and even though we managed to ride comfortably on the shoulder with other cyclists (there are always other cyclists here) we were left feeling like we had smoked a pack of cigarettes by the end of the day.

All of that was over after Nakuru though, when we branched off onto smaller dirt roads and to areas less visited by tourists.  We knew we were getting off the beaten path because the calls of ‘Hello, how are you?’ from every child we passed were replaced by, ‘Wazungu!’ screamed at the top of their lungs as if they had just seen Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse riding down their street on an ice cream truck handing out free candy.

‘Wazungu’ is Swahili for something between ‘Whities’ and ‘Crackers’ depending on the context and the speaker and well, we get that a lot – from kids mostly; they scream it the moment we come into sight, and then they run with us if we’re not going too fast (or sometimes if we are), even pushing Anna ‘s bike for a kilometer or so in the mountains.  We can see why Kenyans are such good runners!

At Baringo we camped in a grove of fig trees where Anna spent a sleepless night defending the tent from ‘leopards’ and ‘hyenas’ and ‘boogeymen’ while Dave slept peacefully by her side.  And then it was up through the geyser fields to lake Bogoria and hippos and crocs before pedaling west up into the mountains.

The Rift Valley in Kenya is in the midst of a several year long drought, and water weighed on every conversation we had through this part of the trip.  It’s the rainy season in Kenya now actually – the season of the short rains – and it should be raining every night, though we have only had very small storms every few days; the shores of all the lakes we passed were far receded from past levels, and though droughts in this area are common, it is clear that much of the current problems stem from logging and deviation of rivers for irrigation.

None of this is any secret: the government has been trying recently to reclaim lands in important watersheds and replant forests before the drought worsens, but in Kenya nothing is so simple: the land to be reforested was given as gifts and rewards to politicians in past administrations as well as being sold to impoverished landless groups, and so the evictions touch on difficult issues of corruption, ethnicity, poverty, and cronyism that no one can easily disentangle.

Still, around Naivasha you wouldn’t have known about the drought even if the lake had receded a kilometer from its past shoreline: business is booming there for the flower industry.  The birthplace of most of Europe’s cut flowers is here, and the area was bustling with activity from the many Kenyans who have migrated to the area for the ‘good jobs’ on offer (yes, working with pesticides in closed greenhouses does qualify for a good job nowadays).

The scale and scope of the greenhouses was really surprising, we biked for almost half a day passing them, each with its own company logo out front, each with its own set of employee housing, each with no problem that we could see getting its hands on water.

Once we got out of the Rift Valley, biking two killer hills into Kabarnet and Iten and then to the western province and Eldoret, even if land questions remained on the headlines of all the newspapers the idea of drought was hard to imagine.  The landscape here was green and fertile, and when we couchsurfed in Eldoret with a Kenyan runner named Hillary, we even had to break out the sweaters the air was so cool.

From Hillary’s, we biked west and then south down to the Kakmega forest, the last Kenyan stand of a once enormous equatorial rain forest, and then down to Kisumu along the shores of lake Victoria.  By this time we had got our routine running smoothly, waking up at 5:30 am (yes, Anna has been waking up at 5:30 am, and not only does she do it easily, she does it with pleasure!) to be on the road with breakfast in our bellies by 7:30.  We then try to take a morning break either to eat some fruit we’ve bought along the way (mangoes, pineapples, avocados, bananas…) or to have a tea and pastry in a small cafe along the road.  Lunch comes around 1:00 or so, when it is really getting hot.  We can usually get some veggies here, balanced of course with either rice or a chapati (flat bread) or the Kenyan staple of Ugali – a mixture of water and corn flour with the consistency of week-old mashed potatoes (mmmm!).  And then it is biking on through the afternoon to our destination, wherever that may be, usually getting there between three and five depending on the total distance for the day.  We’ve been trying to ease our way into things, but we’ve still made a couple 100 plus kilometer days when we’ve been lucky with tailwinds or downhills.

And so yes, things are going well – really since Heathrow things have been even – dare I say – easy.  Dave has had his continuing share of flat tires of course (5 to Anna’s 1 at last count, though we have stopped counting) but otherwise the drivers are not so bad, the dogs haven’t been a problem at all, and the food is actually not so bad as we had feared.

A testament to how nice Kenyan biking is would be the fact that we have already met two other touring cyclists over the past two weeks.  One, Marcus, Swiss, was biking from southern Ethiopia (where, yes, he had stones thrown at him) through Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania on a four month tour; the other, Winnie, German, was biking for three months in Kenya and northern Tanzania.  Both of them have far more experience than us (more than a hundred thousand more kilometers in fact) and it was reassuring to hear their stories and get some of their advice – particularly that of Winnie, who had had six flat tires already on his trip (Marcus had not had one in 15,000 km) – including one in the first two kilometers – finally Dave wasn’t alone!

But of course most memorable through this part of the trip have been the people we have met.

There was Moses for one, who we met in an office while we were having business cards made (yes, permacyclists are now ready to be entered into all your TGI Friday’s business-card lotteries).  Moses works in the energy sector, hoping to use efficiency and innovation to bring electricity to the tens of millions of Kenyans who still live without it.  He told us a good deal about his country – both its problems (‘corruption’) and its strengths (‘the people’).  If all Kenyans are as hard-working as he (working around the clock to support himself and his siblings and parents and to try to remain independent – ‘a free man’ as he put it), then the country is rich indeed.

One particular idea he mentioned that stuck with us was about corruption: ‘Most Kenyans come from a background of poverty,’ he told us, ‘and so when they have the chance to sit at the table, they are going to eat until they are full, it’s human nature.’

And then there was Freddy, quite possibly the nicest human being on the face of the Earth, who we met when an ill-advised ‘shortcut’ was leading us farther and farther from where we wanted to go.  Freddy came running after us through a good 3 kilometers of scrubland when he saw we’d made a wrong turn, and then he even walked with us for an hour to escort us through private land and make sure we made it back to the right route.

Freddy is a ranger at Mt. Longonot National Park and when he saw our bikes and how much stuff we had he laughed at us – ‘Why is it that Americans and Europeans always have so much stuff?’ he wanted to know.  A good question – and if he only knew how much stuff we threw out over the past few months!

We met Harun at Lake Baringo, where he grew up and now works as a guide.  Tours on the lake there are pushed pretty forcefully, with a mass of salesmen surrounding you when you enter town – but Harun won our business when he started speaking flawless French, and then even, upon learning Anna is from Belgium, throwing in a few words of Dutch (and of course all of this comes in addition to being fluent in Hebrew, English, Swahili, and Turkana).

Harun is a professional guide who works all over Kenya, but then comes back to his hometown when he is between contracts.  In the town they have now organized a type of co-op, where local restaurants, boat guides, and fishermen work together to share the money they make from tourists and ensure that it is all reinvested into the community.  Rather than competing to everyone’s detriment, they cooperate.

The co-op has dozens of members, and all of the money we paid for our tour on the lake was handed directly over to them, to then be divided up by need.  Gilbert, who worked in a restaurant we ate at, gets help from the co-op to cover the expenses of his education for instance, and then when he is off from school he works in town and contributes his earnings to the community.

And of course Harun is also a snake-hunter (you know, just catching black mambas and spitting cobras and then milking them for their venom to make anti-venom – your typical superhero stuff) and an ornithologist and just about everything else you could think of – an impressive person through and through.

Patrick is a school teacher in Iten, a small town up in the mountains on the edge of the Rift Valley.  We shared a Coke together (the first time he had ever had a conversation with wazungu) while looking out from our campsite on the valley.  Patrick also shook his head at the state of corruption in Kenya – everyone we talked to did – and he was most impressed that we managed to save money for our trip during several years.  ‘We Africans are too pessimistic to save money I think,’ he told us.

The last person we feel like we should mention was Hillary, our couchsurfing host around Eldoret.  Hillary is a runner who lives and trains in just about the most beautiful place on Earth.  He welcomed us to his home in the mountains like kings and we spent the day working to harvest maize with his friends (none of whom could understand why we would want to do something like that on a rest day) and then even slaughtered a chicken for dinner.

Hillary’s dream is to make it to the US to work or study (ideally to run of course), and like many people we visit was full of questions about visas and work permits and border crossings.  These questions can be hard to answer sometimes – Anna for one knows well the difficulties of immigrants trying to get into Europe, and the US isn’t any better.  And to hear such a desperate desire to escape this country from someone who really seems to have everything that we dream of having – a little land, cows, chickens, rabbits, and a community of friends and family within walking distance.  To give that up to spend your life trying to stay out of closed centers and working for pennies a day…  It’s hard to fathom sometimes.

But if we have learned anything lately it’s that you can’t tell people what to dream, you can only hope that they achieve it.

And that’s that for us I guess.  Feel free to check out the photos and leave us a comment, and we’ll update again in a month or so when we’re back in touch from Mfangano Island.  As always, our Google Group is the best way to know when we update the site, so feel free to sign up!

Thanks for reading this far, and happy holidays!

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